Medieval fare anyone?

Fig and Raisin ‘Cream’

Today’s post is a bit different from my usual ones. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I recently went to Florence (Italy) and in the Museo Casa di Dante, found ‘The Medieval Cookbook’ by Maggie Black. Published by The British Museum and published in English!Shersca Genealogy_Medieval Cookbook_Casa di Dante

Ever since I did my genealogical MSc with the University of Strathclyde, I have become a bit obsessed with the Medieval period and so I was pretty impressed to have found ‘The Medieval Cookbook’ in an Italian museum. Of course I had to buy it and I have decided that trying recipes that may have been familiar to my Medieval ancestors is as good an excuse as any to do more baking and cooking! As this is not a new book (first published in 1992), there are bound to be reviews written by others, but I am approaching this as a purely amateur cook, who is no food stylist either! The good thing about the book thought, is that Maggie lists the original sources that the recipes have been adapted from and gives some background information to each themed chapter.

My first adventure in Medieval cookery began with a recipe that Maggie Black calls Fig and Raisin ‘Cream.’ It seems to be a sauce-like topping that can be used for stewed fruit, stiffened and put in pastry cases or in my case, I used her suggestion to use it as a topping for ice cream. I think only my more upper class Medieval ancestors might have come across this, although Maggie does say that figs were popular in Lent! My ideas about Medieval cookery were that it could be quite complex, but this was a surprisingly easy recipe, which tasted quite delicious at the end.

The basic ingredients are dried figs, raisins, red wine, small amounts of black pepper, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, soft dark brown sugar, rice or cornflour (I used cornflour), red food colouring and salt to taste (all the recipes have been modernised, with modern measurements).

Essentially, you dissolve the sugar with the spices in the wine with the figs and the raisins, mash it to a paste (I admit I used a blender!) and then mix it with a paste made from the cornflour, food colouring and a bit more wine (the ‘cream’ bit). Then you simmer it until it thickens some more. The end product was quite a thick sauce which was still a little warm when poured over the ice cream. It tasted like Christmas to me because of the cinnamon and cloves. It was quite sweet though, so perhaps a bit more salt or less sugar was needed. It may be that tastes have changed since the recipe was invented. I would definitely suggest vanilla ice cream too- I only had Neapolitan to hand and the mixture of strawberry and chocolate ice cream with the fig sauce was certainly interesting!Shersca Gen_Fig and Raisin Cream_Medieval Cookbook

It may not be the most attractive sauce because of the dark colour, but overall it was a big hit with the rest of the family and I would certainly try it again. I’m even thinking of experimenting with it as a mince pie filling for Christmas. For those following #GBBO, it seems like it would also go quite nicely in Fig Rolls….


Online Public Family Trees- a Blessing or a Curse?

When I first started researching my family history, it came out of the desire to find out more about my grandmother’s family. She had just passed away and it helped to occupy my mind. So, how did I begin? With a two-week free trial on Ancestry (I had seen it advertised on television). Then I filled in what I knew and suddenly found that there were loads of other people who had publicly shared their own family trees.

‘How wonderful,’ I thought, as they would be particularly helpful for my father’s side of the family, which I didn’t know so much about. Now, I hate to admit to the next part of the story, because now I know different, but I dutifully looked at other people’s trees and after adding them to mine, I was left with long lines of ancestors I had never known before. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I just committed a cardinal sin!

As I said though, now I know different and I know to dig deeper into any information that I find and, more importantly, to gather evidence and to verify things I have found.

One casualty of my first journey into family history was the Lilly part of my father’s side of the family. The surname doesn’t appear until a few generations back, so was a new name to me. It all began with Elizabeth Lilly (c.1792-1869), who had married one of my Wright ancestors in 1815, in Nailsea. (Incidentally, this part of my father’s family all came from Somerset- a fact which bothers him no end, as he is a proud Welshman!)

When I went back to look at this branch of the family, I was confused to begin with, as all the other trees had described Elizabeth as ‘Elizabeth Lilly Blake’ and apparently the Lilly name stretches back to the Picardie region of France in the early 1630s. After diligently collecting BMD details for Elizabeth, I made a discovery that I would have completely missed, had I left the research solely with other people’s family trees. It seems that Elizabeth was baptised on 28 Jul 1771 in Clapton in Gordano, the illegitimate daughter of Hester Lilly. Another look at Hester found that she had another 6 illegitimate children, all baptised in Tickenham! Luckily for me, some of the entries named William Blake as the father, so it was reasonable to think that perhaps all 6 children were William Blake’s- especially since I found a marriage for the couple in Portbury on 08 October 1827, 17 years after the last child was baptised.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining why Elizabeth was called ‘Elizabeth Lilly Blake’ by so many people- she was baptised as Elizbeth Lilly, but her parents did later marry and so the children could have used the name Blake. Elizabeth herself, uses that name when she married John Wright in 1815.

So with one mystery on its way to completion, I turned my attention to Elizabeth’s mother Hester Lilly (c.1771-1840) and in turn her father William Lilly (d. c.1785).

Finding baptism, marriage and burial information for Hester was fairly straightforward (she was baptised in Clapton in Gordano and appears to have been buried in Portishead), but William was not so easy. He was married and buried in Portbury (in 1746 and 1785 respectively), but I could not find a baptism. There was a reason for this, as there is a large gap in the Portbury parish registers between 1641-1719. This meant that the possibility of a 1715 birth for William (which came from other family trees) can’t be proven yet.

I decided to have a look at some of these other trees, to try to find if the information was sourced or noted to have come from somewhere, but with the trees linking to other trees as a source, it was impossible! There is no indication within the online trees that I have found where the information for William’s baptism comes from. To the observer, it would seem that this information and the names of William’s parents have been plucked out of thin air.

Now, it is not my intention to berate the people who have made their trees public or to tell them that it’s all wrong. The point I am trying to make, is that the users of any online genealogy service are all at different stages of research and knowledge, especially when it comes to industry best practices. These public trees have given me an avenue to go down with the possibility that the Lilly’s were French, but I will need to do some more leg work to find the proof for this- i.e. they can be useful, but use them carefully and back up any facts stated with evidence.

As far as finding a baptism for William Lilly and more information about possible parents, I think a trip to the Somerset Heritage Centre is on the cards…. (have a look at my previous post about using archives).

The information in this post was mostly from the Somerset Baptism, Marriage and Burial Collections on Ancestry, but they can also be found at the Somerset Heritage Centre.